by Christina Enevoldsen
I talk about my childhood sexual abuse very publicly now, but I didn’t start there. The first time I ever told anyone I’d been abused it didn’t go very well. For years, I’d repressed most of my childhood memories when suddenly, in my early twenties, I knew I’d been abused. The knowledge came in a flash. I didn’t have any specific recall, know who my abuser was or feel any pain, but I was sure I’d been sexually abused.
I thought my parents would want to know, so the first chance I got, I visited them. When I walked in their house, my mom stood in the kitchen. We made small talk for a few minutes, but I couldn’t wait to tell her the reason for my visit, so I blurted out, “I was sexually abused.” I heard a booming voice from the other room where my dad was watching television, “NO, YOU WEREN’T!!!” My mother responded without interest, as though I never said a word.
Years later, when the memories flooded back and I realized that my dad was my abuser while my mom looked the other way, their responses made so much sense. I didn’t know it then, but now I know that telling my parents wasn’t the best place to begin disclosing my abuse.
Breaking the silence of abuse is a vital step toward healing. The secrets you hold actually hold you, keeping you captive to the abuser’s power. Telling is a way to break free from the bond the secret created between you and your abuser.
The way you take the first few steps in disclosure can influence whether you advance or withdraw in your healing. Telling a safe person who validates you makes it easier to go on to the next part of the process. When you disclose your abuse to someone who is compassionate, understanding, and accepting, it’s a relief to know you’re no longer alone. However, sharing emotionally vulnerable moments with someone who is unsupportive may cause you to feel even more isolated and can hinder your progress.
Though many survivors of abuse assume that their family will believe them and comfort them, that isn’t always true. In fact, it’s very common for families to reject rather than support the survivor. Sometimes parents reject the possibility that their child was abused because to accept the truth is too painful. Sometimes the disclosure brings up pain from their own abuse. They might also feel personally threatened. They may view it as an accusation that they aren’t good parents for failing to protect you.
Many victims of sexual abuse are abused by family members. In that case, other family members may have divided loyalties. If the daughter was abused by Grandpa, parents have to choose one family member over another. Many family members are unwilling to do that, especially if they have their own unmet needs from the relationship with the abuser.
If you are a survivor of incest, there’s an excellent chance that you’re not the only victim in your family and your abuser isn’t the only perpetrator. In incest families the family system has a culture that protects itself by keeping the secret. That system’s survival depends on the secret being kept. They will sacrifice one member for the sake of the system. In most cases, the survivor who is willing to talk about the abuse is the healthiest person in the family. The survivor is the one who recognizes the truth the earliest and seek change and healing, while the others see survival by maintaining the status quo. That is a threat to the family unit and the person who wants change is often viewed as the enemy. Because of personal defenses, your family isn’t always likely to be the best source of support and understanding.
The best chance to receive a supportive response is to begin by telling a friend who’s trustworthy and comfortable with emotions. Choose a friend you feel safe with and who doesn’t know your abuser—someone who doesn’t have anything to lose in believing you.
A few years after telling my parents, I was validated by a group of women who openly discussed their own abuse. I learned from them that talking about abuse is nothing to be ashamed about. I was accepted and believed and I felt like I belonged. With their support, I had a firm foundation and I started to see that healing was possible.
I had mostly good experiences for many years. Occasionally, someone would get a blank stare and put up a defensive wall and I knew they didn’t want to hear anymore. That was okay. By then, I was well on my way to healing and I understood that people have their own issues and their own needs may not allow them to hear me. I didn’t take it personally anymore.
My next stage in disclosure was speaking to a group of about forty people, many of whom knew my father. I wasn’t sure what their reaction would be, but I felt ready to share it, no matter their response. I had enough of a support system, within myself and with others, so I was secure and didn’t need anything from them. I just wanted the opportunity to share the truth. They were overwhelmingly supportive.
I was validated by the group, but when I went home that night I heard a little girl’s voice in my head saying, “You told,” in an accusing tone. I recognized that the little girl was the little girl inside of me. She was the one who was warned not to tell. She was the one who was afraid and felt threatened. But as my adult self, I wasn’t under my father’s power anymore and he couldn’t do anything to hurt me. So I comforted myself with that and validated my progress—and continued to tell.
After that, I published the story of my abuse history online. I wanted it to be public. I wanted the whole world to see it. I wasn’t afraid of my dad finding out. I wanted my parents to read what I wrote. I wanted them to know I was talking about it. I felt empowered and strong.
My last step was talking on the radio. It felt natural and comfortable to talk about it. It was an affirming step and I felt good. But the next day, I was exhausted and felt defeated. In hearing myself speak about it, I accepted and understood my abuse in a different way, which helped me to tap into new levels of grief I hadn’t touched before. It felt bad, but it was part of the process and I was happy to be taking another step.
Even if you’ve been telling for years, you may experience new feelings as you take different steps. Take time to evaluate how you feel after each new step. Those feelings need to be validated and expressed. Emotions are good, even if they’re painful. Just as in all parts of the healing process, it’s important to take small steps and proceed at your own rate.
Part of telling is choosing who you tell and don’t tell. You don’t have any control over how people will react, but you do have control over who you share it with. You don’t have to publish a book or post it online. Talking about your abuse to someone is important, but you don’t have to tell everyone and you aren’t a failure or a coward if you choose not to.
Talking about your abuse is important, but how you disclose it can make the difference in how beneficial it is. These are some things to remember to increase the chances that your disclosure will be well-received:
1. Start with someone who is emotionally available and who doesn’t know your abuser.
2. Start small and privately.
3. Evaluate your emotions and practice self care after each new step in disclosure.
4. Take time to validate yourself after you disclose.
5. If you want to make your abuse experience known to more people or disclose to your family, establish a base of support with trusted others first.
No matter how anyone responds, what happened to you was serious and you deserve to be treated well. Don’t allow anyone to keep you from doing what’s best for you. You may not get the validation you need from everyone, but you can validate yourself.
PLEASE NOTE that there are situations where your safety would be put in jeopardy if you speak of your abuse publicly. Ritual abuse is one example of that. Please use extreme caution if your disclosure would put you in danger.
I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. I’m a Strategic Interventionist and Certified Professional Life Coach with a specialty Life Story Certification. As a survivor of incest, sex trafficking and a 21-year long abusive marriage (now remarried to an emotionally healthy, loving and supportive man), I bring personal experience, empathy, and insight as well as professional training to help childhood sexual abuse survivors thrive.
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